Our neighbour Evelyn has asked for my help in writing a novel.
She tells me she can be the next Margaret Atwood.
I’ve agreed to help, despite grave misgivings.
To be honest, I’m dreading the next step. I’m a writer, not a teacher, as I told Evelyn. She’s asking me to help her do something that, as the great American essayist Louis Menand has said, is essentially counter to human nature – to actually write (as opposed to planning to write very, very soon).
And yet, here we are, about to start.
As Evelyn said, this could be a one-night stand.
In order to keep sane during this process I will record what happens. So here goes.
‘How do you start?’ she asks.
We’re sitting at the round table in our kitchen on baton-backed wooden chairs, sometimes called Windsor-style wooden chairs, in which the slightly curved backrest consists of spindles held together with a robust cross beam. There’s a warm Aga, the walls are lined with books on evenly spaced American ash book shelves. It’s very cosy. Evelyn has a pad and a pen before her. Otherwise the circular table is empty.
‘How do you kick off?’ Evelyn asks. She has the sudden air of someone used to authority. ‘How do I get going?’
‘You need something to hold on to,’ I say, trying to sound confident.
‘Something with which you’re familiar. A situation or place or people you know well. Or you need an activity or activities you are at home with. It may be that these prerequisites are in the past, that they are things, people and places you remember. But they need to be solid.’
‘Solid enough to hold on to. To write about. In order to then transpose to your imagination.’
Evelyn bites her lip. ‘Is all that another way of saying write what you know about?’
‘Er, yes, probably.’
She looks at me sternly, as if I’ve overlooked something. ‘But what about the plot?’
‘What do you mean?’
‘I’m obsessed with plot,’ she says and plunges her fingers through her hair. ‘I spend hours walking around, trying to work out a plot for a novel. I’m like a hamster on a wheel. Sometimes it makes my head spin.’
I take another deep breath. ‘Forget plot! What I’m saying has nothing to do with a plot. A plot is where you end up when they bury you. You’re now at the start. You’re sitting in the car outside your house, at the beginning of your journey. You haven’t even turned on the engine.’
‘Crikey,’ Evelyn says. ‘Sounds like I’ll be driving to the cemetery in a mixed metaphor.’
This is what I’ve been dreading. ‘Look, this is how you do it. You need something to hold on to. A scene. A setting. A person or people. All the better if they’re particular to you. Put them down on paper. Write, write, write. Eventually a pattern will emerge that will have meaning for you and a way forward will appear.’n
Evelyn’s cheeks enlarge in a display of mild irritation. ‘You do realise that you’re being opaque,’ she says. ‘Unclear,’ she adds.
‘I do know what opaque means.’
‘So – write, you say. Write about what?’
‘Write about the solid thing you’re holding on to. About something you know. Anything. It will steady you. Something will emerge.’
‘Writers think by writing. Things happen when you write. Put another way, things won’t happen until you write. This is a phenomenon shared by most writers.’
‘I never knew that.’
‘I made a few notes earlier that might help,’ I say and reach for the page I have prepared.
THINK OF WRITING AS A FORM OF THINKING
Welcome to the dark side of the moon.
The physical act of writing, or typing, if you will, itself leads on, eventually, after many false starts, to where you want a story to go.
Writers tend to think by means of writing.
‘How do I know what I think until I see what I write?’ is a maxim attributed to E.M. Forster, the author of A Passage to India.
‘I write because I don’t know what I think until I see what I say,’ said Flannery O’Connor.
‘I don’t know what I think until I write it down,’ says U.S. author and journalist Joan Didion.
And then there was the lady who approached the great French writer, Zola, and said to him in a beseeching tone, ‘Oh, Mr Zola! I want more than anything else to write!’ To which the bemused Zola replied, ‘Well…write madam! Write!’
It’s no good thinking about it. You must engage with the page.
Yours as ever,
A LOCAL SEX CULT?
‘That’s a nice little phrase,’ Evelyn says and smiles as if at last I’ve succeeded in making sense. ‘Engage with the page.’
‘I can’t put it more plainly. One of the early realities of the challenge of writing is that, in order to write, you must write. It’s no good pacing furiously up and down the room and trying to force something out from the space between your ears. YOU MUST WRITE!’
‘So…I just sit down…’
‘Philip Roth wrote standing up because of his bad back.’
‘About something you know very well.’
I am actually quite proud that I have anticipated this question. ‘What about Dig It & Dung It?’
Evelyn’s nose wrinkles. ‘You mean…’
‘Your little group that goes around in an old minibus doing God knows what. Some people say you’re like one of these sex cults.’
‘They can say what they like, we are respectable foragers,’ she sniffs, ‘most of the time.’
‘Dig It & Dung It sounds like a little world within a world,’ I say. ‘A bit like a novel.’
‘Describe it in detail.’
‘Your minibus, for a start.’
I get up from the table, go to the bookcase and return with a book.
‘Listen to this. “On the lower shelf five vertical breakfast plates, six horizontal breakfast saucers on which rested breakfast cups, a moustachecup, uninverted, and saucer of Crown Derby, four white goldrimmed eggcups, an open shammy purse displaying coins, mostly copper, and a phial of aromatic (violet) comfits.” This is Joyce, towards the end of Ulysses, at the beginning of a long description of the contents of Leopold Bloom’s kitchen dresser. The description is delicious and it goes on and on. The meticulous description not only fixes the attention of the reader, it also equips the writer – in this case James Joyce – with a complete and total interior picture of the kitchen dresser he is describing. Joyce uses microscopic detail here so that the reader too is totally immersed.
And so, with Dig It & Dung It. I know you travel around in a minibus on your mysterious outings. So describe the minibus in the same kind of detail that Joyce describes Bloom’s kitchen dresser.’
‘Describe the minibus? It’s just an old…minibus!’
‘Maybe so, but I want you to think of it as a tool with which to explore your imagination. It’s what I want you to hold on to. For example, what’s the first thing you see when you get on board the bus?’
Evelyn’s hazel eyes narrow when she thinks. ‘A net of lemons.’
‘It’s Joe Kelly’s responsibility. Before each trip his job is to make sure there’s a net-full of fresh lemons hanging from the hook in the ceiling of the minibus. Someone else, sometimes it’s me, is in charge of ice. Someone else is gin, someone else tonic.’
Evelyn is concentrating deeply now. She goes on:
‘The bus is grey, I think it’s an ancient Vauxhall of some description, the wheels have red rims. There’s a long roof rack. We have an old wooden wine box that we use as a step to get in and get out, because the van is of an age when fancy in-built steps were not the thing, and a couple of years ago, Mercy O’Shea fell getting out and fractured her ankle, although I’m pretty sure it was more the refreshments than the height off the ground that was the problem. Anyway, the seats are genuine leather, Burgundy in colour, with tooled grooves, very smart, actually…’
I’m smiling now. It takes Evelyn ten minutes to describe the minibus, and that includes the engine, a large, glowering collection of oil encrusted pistons and valves, to which Evelyn’s late husband Bill (RIP) used to administer first-aid when he was a Digger & Dunger, as I now learn members of this group are called. At the end, Evelyn sits back.
‘I never knew I knew all I know about our minibus,’ she says with a touch of wonder.
I’m feeling strangely gratified, to tell the truth. I think we’ve achieved something this evening. Maybe, who knows?
‘I think you’ve opened a little door into my brain,’ she says. ‘Thank you.’
This evening it’s raining so she’s driven over. She pauses at the backdoor and hands me a paper bag from her car.
‘Sloe gin –remember?’
‘There’s no need…’
Evelyn recognises a feeble protest when she hears one. ‘One question,’ she says. ‘Did you enjoy it?’
‘Actually, I did,’ I say.
‘So, do you think we can continue?’ she asks and looks at me the way I remember people used to look at me during unproductive job interviews.
‘Let’s keep it going,’ I say with what I hope is conviction.
‘Excellent,’ she says and rewards me with a smile.
And off she goes then at a steady pace into the moonlight and I’m left thinking, there’s a side to this woman that no one in this little community knows.